‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
New Englanders in general, and Vermonters in particular, are known for being fiercely independent. They like doing things their own way, thinking their own thoughts, regardless of how others may regard their “peculiarities.” They’re not lemmings who follow the crowd, or “joiners” who need to be part of the latest craze or movement. I suspect that it’s this independent streak that lures many Vermont transplants to this area where they can feel free from the chains of cultural conformity.
Unfortunately, even the greatest virtues can be taken to an extreme where they become negative and counterproductive. Independence is no exception. Excessive preoccupation with independence can lead to isolation, lack of intimacy, and reluctance to make a firm commitment. It can lead us to underestimate our need for other people. It can lead us to hide our vulnerabilities and come across to others as superior, hostile, or aloof. Too much independence can destroy a relationship or ruin a marriage. The result can be loneliness, depression, conflict, and unspeakable pain.
This obsession with independence has had a particularly destructive impact on churches. It has led many to the heretical conclusion that a person can faithfully follow Jesus apart from the company of other people of faith. There are far too many people today who suffer from the illusion that what they privately believe about God or Jesus makes them a Christian, and that they have no need to associate with other Christians or participate regularly in the life of a church. While it is common these days to refer to such folks as “spiritual-but-not-religious” (or SBNR), I suspect that in many cases a better description would be “spiritually lazy” or “spiritually irresponsible.”
From the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, he never called people to follow him apart from the company of other disciples. He knew that spiritual maturity requires not only a committed relationship to him, but also to the others who traveled with him. While he knew that their discipleship would be flawed and filled with misguided blunders, he also knew that suffering through that process together would be an essential part of their spiritual development. Love can only grow in community, not in isolation. Forgiveness and redemption can only be experienced in the context of a community where our vulnerabilities and flaws are exposed, acknowledged, and absolved. Such a faith community requires regular participation in order for the experience to be transformative – Christmas and Easter appearances can’t provide the formative context for genuine spiritual growth.
The “light” that Jesus speaks of in the passage above will never be seen if we hold on too tightly to our independence. That “light” is not our good deeds or moral accomplishments, but the light of God’s presence shining through us into the lives of others. It’s not a light that we generate or that we can always see in ourselves, but it’s a light that is much more easily seen in each other’s company. The light is God’s Spirit residing within you and is not your private possession, but God’s gift to those with whom you associate. That light was never meant to be contained exclusively within the church, but to shine into every dark corner of Life. But it is only within the community of the church, as we stand together in the presence of God, that our egos become transparent, and we are reminded that the light is really there, and still burning within us. Only with that regular reassurance can we possibly dare to believe that we are what Jesus said we are: The light of the world!
Please don’t allow the light God has invested in you to be hidden from the rest of us.